The Rewriting of History

As a historian I know there is really no such thing as absolute truth in history. What we think has taken place in our past is almost totally based on how others perceived what they experienced and then took the time to somehow pass along to others.

That we arrive at differing accounts of history is to be expected. Many people can be eye witnesses to an event and not agree on exactly what it was they witnessed. They can also disagree on the significance of what they experienced. I, for example, was smack dab in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. You couldn’t have been any closer without actually being on the island of Cuba itself. When the whole think was over and I had time to read the newspaper and magazine accounts of just how close the world came to nuclear annihilation I was shocked. I was a Radioman and privy to top-secret information even before our ship’s captain saw it and still didn’t perceive we were all that close to Armageddon. I just knew we were putting in long hours at sea, living on short rations, and that we had orders to open fire upon any Soviet freighter who attempted to sneak past us headed for Cuba.

Years later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, a great deal of information was declassified and just how perilous the situation was became better known. I learned that those Soviet subs we chased all over the Caribbean were armed with nuclear torpedoes and the captains had standing orders to use them at their own discretion. They didn’t have to call home first!

The point I’m headed for is this, there are some things we know about historical events, such as the dates and locations of things. But, there are others that are subject to interpretation which would include, as previously mentioned, importance, significance, impact, etc.

Historians can argue forever about the significance of the Missile Crisis but none can deny that it took place during the month of October in the year of 1962. All too often, though, someone comes along and attempts to change the basic facts and that is when I, as a historian, can’t resist calling them to task. Such is what just occurred at the RNC’s Republican Convention in Tampa, Florida. Repeatedly the many orators at that event went beyond the interpretation of historical events and blatantly attempted to change those facts to suit their ideological goals.

Paul Ryan is probably the most obvious example, with Romney a close second. Repeatedly in his acceptance speech he either made things up or conveniently left things out for the purpose of rewriting or altering the basics of historical fact. It can genuinely be argued why an Illinois General Motors plant had to be closed. But to say it was Obama’s fault, when it took place before Obama was even elected, is clearly an attempt to alter history. Simply put, it was a lie and quite different from stretching the truth about how quickly he once ran a marathon.

Altering the basics is just something that should never be tolerated, regardless of who is doing it. Just today I read that Bishop Desmond Tutu thinks Tony Blair and former president George W. Bush should be hauled before the International Criminal Court and “made to answer” for the invasion of Iraq. That Iraq was invaded is certainly a matter of fact. But, whether it was a criminal act is obviously open to interpretation. Tutu also claimed that the actions of the two leaders, “… destabilized and polarised the world to a greater extent than any other conflict in history.” Sort of gives new meaning to terms such as holocaust and world war, huh?

There is nothing new about rewriting history, dictators and religious zealots have done it for millennia. But unfortunately, in today’s GOP it seems to have lost its stigma. In fact, it could easily be argued it is both condoned and encouraged. Even that we have greater access to information today historical distortion seems easier than ever. It has been said this is true because being lied to is what the public has come to expect.

For more on the subject of historical revision you might want to read Simon Schama’s article on the subject.

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